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The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive. You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted. From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week. NOTE: The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday.
|Sixth Sunday of Easter||May 16, 2004|
Sometimes it seems like our church is always embroiled in some controversy. A priest is accused of terrible crimes. Some bishops say that politicians, such as Sen. John Kerry or Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey, can't receive holy Communion. Other bishops say they can. Or we read about and get distressed over the fact that parishes are closing because we don't have enough priests.
There are lots of problems in our church. Some of us find that very hard to deal with. Some people think it was calmer in the past and we didn't have all this controversy. Some think that, back then, the church used to be much more in control of things and we didn't have negative stories about it appearing in our daily newspapers. But if we listen carefully to the readings today, we discover that controversy is really not new to the church. Controversy has been part of the church from the beginning.
As we reflect on the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, I hope we don't miss how extreme that controversy really was. The church -- which was at its very beginning -- was in danger of breaking up. Paul had been preaching the Good News outside of the Promised Land, outside of what we now call Palestine. Paul had gone north, up into Syria and Antioch, and had begun to establish new churches. People were flocking to hear the Word, to follow Jesus as Paul preached. He was telling them they didn't have to become Jewish first, that they were free from the law.
Back in Jerusalem, especially among the Pharisees who had been converted to Jesus, there was this conviction that anyone who was going to become a Christian first had to become a Jew. After all, Jesus had said (and they would quote this): "I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it," and the law required circumcision. How could Paul and the others say: "No, you don't need that"?
Jesus was circumcised. If he was, why shouldn't his male followers? Circumcision was a very important ritual. It symbolized the covenant of love between God and the chosen people. Those who believed in that didn't want to let go of it easily. So, the church was about to be split apart. But it wasn't! Maybe the most important thing we can learn today is how those first Christians resolved this controversy and gave us an example of how we need to resolve our controversies today.
The first thing that occurs to me as I listen to these lessons today is that, of course, Jesus is our model -- but that means his teachings, his values. It doesn't mean all the details of his life. He lived at a different time and in a different culture and in a different historical setting. If you say you are going to follow Jesus, it doesn't mean you become exactly like Jesus in every way. You follow his values and his teachings.
So, when some people said that because Jesus was circumcised, his male followers should be also, that didn't hold water. It wasn't convincing. Now there are people who say: "If Jesus never ordained women, they can't be ordained." Well, Jesus lived in a different time, a different culture, a different place. Today, if we really listened to the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised to us in the Gospel, maybe we would be going in a different direction. Maybe our shortage of ordained ministers would disappear if we would listen to the Spirit and not think we have to follow Jesus in every way, in every physical detail. Now we recognize women are fully equal to men, so why not recognize that in the church? That's what we would learn if we were listening to today's scriptures.
Another thing to pay attention to is how this controversy was resolved. Look at how it happened. Up in Syria, they had what we would call today a local church, like the Detroit archdiocese is our local church. Then they had their center, the mother church, in Jerusalem. We have our center, our mother church, in Rome. Today we are used to the idea that decrees and directives and so on come from Rome, from the center, and very often without any counsel with the local churches.
You had a good example of this if you happened to see The Michigan Catholic this week. Bishops from Michigan are in Rome for what they call the ad limina visit. Every five years, the bishop of a diocese has to go to Rome to meet the Holy Father and report on the status of the diocese. Now that is supposed to be a two-way conversation. The local church goes to Rome and talks about what's happening and what needs to be done. Instead of that, what you find is the pope has a prepared speech that he delivers. The listening and talking go only one way.
How different was the early church. Members of the local church from Syria went to Jerusalem, and they explained what great things were happening because they had opened up the church to the gentiles and the word of God was spreading. The mother church listened and changed. That has to happen more often in our church today.
Yet, it seems like we are afraid. We are afraid to open ourselves to the kind of changes that can happen. Jesus, in today's Gospel, was preparing us for this. He said: "I've told you all these things. There is more for you to hear, but you are not ready to hear it yet. I will send you the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit will show you the way."
Part of what we are to learn about following Jesus, then, comes from understanding how the Holy Spirit is working within each one of us. This is the third thing that the early church understood so well: that you need look at the experiences of people who are following Jesus faithfully and learn from them. You make decisions based on these experiences. Peter and Paul discovered this. Their experience was that God was working outside the old, established structures. So when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, a pagan -- according to the old law, he wasn't even supposed to enter the house of pagan -- suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon that house and all were all filled with the Spirit. Peter said: "My God! It was just like us at the beginning." God works outside our structures. Paul experienced the same thing.
Today, we in the church structures haven't learned well to accept the experience of the people. We really need to listen and try to learn from people's experience, especially in our church today in the area of sexuality, where obviously the church has a lot of problems. That is part of the reason we have the scandal going on in the church.
For so long, we had a limited, almost distorted understanding of married love. Now we have a better understanding because we have listened to the experience of married people. The teaching that came out about marriage in the Second Vatican Council flowed from the experience of married people. It was so different, so much richer than anything we had before. I dare say that if we were to listen to the experience of homosexuals and how they try to live faithfully according to who they are, we might be able to resolve the controversy in our church over that issue.
The main thing is we can't be afraid. We have to try and do what the early church did. Come together as a whole community and share our experiences. The local church speaking to the mother church with all of us trying to be open to the Holy Spirit and really ready to follow where the Spirit leads us -- even where we would rather not go. That's how we are going to resolve the controversies that are present in our church today. That's how we will be able to move beyond the crisis time that we have experienced and see it as an opportunity for new life, new growth, new vitality within our church.
But, it will require every one of us to listen deeply to what Jesus says in the Gospel: "If you love me you will obey my word and then the Spirit of God will fill you." When we try to love Jesus, to obey, to listen to his word and be open to the Spirit, all of us can enter into healing the conflicts and the controversies in our church.
And then, what will happen is what Jesus promised in the Gospel: "My peace I give you. Not as the world gives it. I give it in a deeper, more lasting way, and that peace will come to each of us and to the whole church."
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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